Bryce isn't used to people saying no to him, and he can't forget Mel or their brief but sizzling affair. He might not have been offering forever, but Bryce can't understand a guy as sexy and smart as Mel choosing to stay rooted on the family farm over enjoying the high life with him. He's determined to make Mel see what he's missed out on the first chance he gets.
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Bruce Springsteen was asking Clarence Clemmons if he'd been good this year. Decorative snowflakes drifted onto rows of evergreens. Kids laughed and chased each other around a classically constructed snowman. On the tenth of December, Holly's Tree Farm was enjoying the peak weekend of peak season. And I was counting down the hours until I could escape this Christmas hell for a glorious week in sunny St. Thomas.
"Sixty hours, twenty-two minutes," I grunted as my sister and I swung the nine feet of Douglas fir up to balance on three feet of Prius roof.
"We know, we know." Allie, my brother's wife, stepped around me to offer hot chocolate to the new owners of the Douglas fir.
"So shut up and tie." My sister threw a length of twine across roof and tree, burning my cheek as the end whipped by.
"Nice shot," I told her as I crouched down in half-frozen mud to look for a place to tie off my end.
We were all pretty good at aiming the twine we used to tie down the trees. Gloves or no, we spent all of January digging fiber slivers out of our skin the way other people combed tinsel icicles out of their carpets.
By the time we had wrapped off the twine, The Boss was hoarsely winding down his version of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town." The eternally upbeat DJ announced, "And now, a special request from Holly's Tree Farm." I looked around in panic. The first few strains of Andy Williams's "We Three Kings" cued up. I was going to kill my brother. If any of the old timers were here, I'd be stuck reliving the worst part of my childhood.
I headed for the tractor to see if any of the cut-your-owners needed help lugging their future fire hazard back to their car. If I wasn't here, no one could
Mrs. Carmichael appeared right in my path, two grandchildren in tow. "You're all here this year. Please. They've never seen it."
"Yeah, my kids have never seen you guys do your thing." Her son Mark, wore the same smirk I'd gotten used to in high school.
We'd managed to avoid the ritual since my brother Bal left home. Twelve years of freedom because it didn't work with two.
"C'mon, bro." Bal hooked his arm around my neck and led me toward the life-sized Nativity scene on the left side of the parking lot.
I shut my eyes and let him drag me along. It wouldn't be that bad. One or two pictures, no props or robes.
"Allie found the costumes upstairs and brought them down."
My eyes popped open. What had looked like a bolt of cloth propped up against the wall of the roofed platform resolved into three colors purple, blue, red. Three shining plastic crowns, the frankincense, myrrh, and gold. One for each of the name-cursed Halner children, brother Balthasar, sister Caspar, and me, Melchior.
Cas shrugged into her red robe and slapped a crown on me. "Play nice, Mel. Sixty hours-hours and nineteen minutes."
"Sixteen." I knew to the minute exactly how long every damned Christmas song in recorded history was. I kept track of time with them since I heard them a thousand times between Thanksgiving and January 7.
"Right. So behave."
It was easy for Cas. She'd never had to hear Mark Carmichael sneering, "Shouldn't his robes be pink? He's a natural in a dress."